NBA Midseason Report
By Jon Nichols
Every team has played at least 50 games so far, so the playoff stretch run is upon us. Who’s been the best so far and who should we look out for over the next few months?
Best Team: Phoenix Suns (39-12)
Yes, the Dallas Mavericks do have the best record (and they are an honorable runner-up), but what Phoenix has done so far is nothing short of extraordinary. Between November 20th and January 28th, they went 33-2. The two losses were by a combined 7 points, one of them on the road at Dallas. They’ve also been very good in terms of point differential, beating their opponents by an average of 7.3 points per game (trailing only Dallas at 7.4.). So why Phoenix over Dallas? Phoenix has played almost as well as Dallas despite suffering many more injuries. Only Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion have appeared in every game for the Suns, and Stoudemire was still getting adjusted to the game at first after having knee surgery. Kurt Thomas, Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa, and Boris Diaw have missed a combined 29 games this year. Meanwhile, Dallas has 6 players that have missed just one game or less this season. It was a close call, but I had to go with Phoenix, whose record is deceivingly unimpressive thanks to Nash’s recent injury.
Best Player: Dwyane Wade
He may not get many MVP votes because of the way his team is struggling (a foolish notion that I will avoid tearing apart in this article), but Wade has been the best player in the league thus far. I’m going to use a lot of advanced statistics here, so bear with me. First, Wade has the league’s highest Player Efficiency Rating (developed by ESPN’s John Hollinger) at 29.89. If the season ended today, it would rank as the 14th best single season PER of all time. According to 82games.com, Wade has a Roland Rating (basically +/-) of 17.7, surpassed only by Dirk Nowitzki’s 18.2. It’s a really tough choice between those two. Nowitzki has been more efficient, but Wade has carried a heavier load, gotten less help from his teammates, and is a better defender, so he gets the nod.
Most Improved Player: Zach Randolph
Randolph has emerged as one of the league’s most talented young big men. Randolph is just 25, and has improved his play dramatically since last year. His field goal percentage, free throw shooting, and rebounding have all made significant improvements. This has all occurred despite Randolph taking over more of the Blazers’ scoring load. Randolph uses 30.5 possessions per 40 minutes, ranking him 4th in the league in that category behind Carmelo Anthony, Wade, and Tracy McGrady. He still doesn’t shoot as high of a percentage as you would like (probably because 61% of his shots are jump shots), but he’s the best player on a talented young team.
Best Rookie: Paul Millsap
He’s a 6-8 power forward drafted in the second round, but he has been the best rookie in an uninspiring rookie class so far. He was a tremendous rebounder at Louisiana Tech, and he’s carried over his skills to the NBA. According to a stat called Rebound Rate (the percentage of missed shots on both ends of the court that a player rebounds), Millsap is the 19th best rebounder in the NBA, better than players such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, and Jermaine O’Neal. He’s also an efficient scorer, making 53.7% of his shots. According to 82games.com’s Roland Rating, he’s the second best player on the Jazz, a team with the third best record in the league. He does turn the ball over way too much, but he should be able to improve that as he gains experience in the league. Remember, big men who can defend and rebound are very valuable.
Biggest Disappointment (Team): Boston Celtics
We knew Boston was young, so we knew they would struggle, but did anyone see this coming? Boston has limped to a record of 13-38, including the infamous 18-game losing streak. The Celtics are near the bottom in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’re 15 games behind the division leaders even in the terrible Atlantic division. Al Jefferson has improved since last year, but he seems to be the only one. Of course, some of the struggles can be attributed to Paul Pierce’s injury, which caused him to miss 24 games. Still, Boston is going to easily surpass last year’s loss total, and young teams are supposed to get better as time goes on.
Biggest Disappointment (Player): Ben Wallace
Wallace hasn’t been terrible, notching a PER of 14.20. However, this is not what the Bulls were hoping for when they signed him to a four-year, $60 million contract in the offseason. Wallace was supposed to bring the inside presence the Bulls lacked and turn them into a contender, but instead he’s been worse and much more expensive than the player he replaced, Tyson Chandler. Wallace has seen drops in his already dismal shooting percentages (yes, he’s even worse in free throws) and rebounding along with increased turnovers. Chandler has rebounded and played defense just as well as him, and has been much more effective on offense. The Bulls have actually been better defensively with Wallace on the bench. Wallace is 32, and his skills seem to be declining. They’ll still be paying him $15 million a year when he’s 35 and much worse than he is now.
Team to Watch Out For in the 2nd Half: Houston Rockets
Houston has compiled a record of 33-19, good for 5th best in the league so far. However, there are a number of indicators that say Houston should be even better in the 2nd half. Yao Ming has missed 25 games so far. When he comes back in March, the Rockets will be getting back the best center in the league and a top 5 player overall. Also, Houston’s point differential (+5.6) and Expected Win % based on point differential (.728 compared to an actual win percentage of .635) give the impression that the Rockets have been unlucky so far this season. Those kinds of things even out, so the Rockets may end up with the 3rd best record in the league by season’s end.
Player to Watch Out For in the 2nd Half: Andre Iguodala
I predicted he would be the most improved player in the league this year, and although he may not win the award, he hasn’t disappointed. The key to his improvement has been an increased role in the 76ers’ offense. Iguodala uses 20.8 possessions per 40 minutes this year, compared to just 13.7 last year. Consequentially, his points per game average has increased from 12.3 to 17.7. He averaged 13.6 ppg playing with Allen Iverson this year. Since the trade, he’s averaged 19.7. With a pass-first point guard in Andre Miller playing alongside him (assuming Miller isn’t traded), there’s no reason to believe Iguodala won’t keep improving.
Information from ESPN.com, basketball-reference.com, KnickerBlogger.Net, and 82games.com was used in this report.
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